Training for Control and the Hierarchy of Needs

"The person who hasn't conquered, withstood and overcome continues to feel doubtful that he could. This is true not only for external dangers; it holds also for the ability to control and to delay one’s own impulses, and therefore to be unafraid of them.”

Taking Control: Training and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

By: Nick Soleyn, Editor in Chief

People want to feel in control, and the feeling of control nestles most comfortably in our minds when our needs are met and our wants are satisfied. A big part of the value of strength training is that it is highly satisfying. Every workout is a small win that brings you closer to a need or a want. Even better, you can actually see and feel that it is working as your body changes shape and you get fitter and healthier. Training is an island of control and organizing force in many people’s lives.

Inevitably, however, our perceptions of control get shaken. Nature’s indifference, life’s randomness, or people’s surprising draw toward dissonance reveal how little control we actually have. In contrast to the feelings of control that something like training gives us, having our apparent lack of control exposed in such ways can leave us feeling anxious and out of sorts.

Studies continually observe this grasping for the “illusion of control.” People make choices that increase their sense of control even when circumstances are clearly random or when the act of taking control is counterproductive. The illusion of control is at the root of superstition and the source of many of our choices that have no benefit other than doing something instead of doing nothing. (You might, for example, decide to take side streets to avoid gridlock, knowing deep down that you will not save any time.) There are things we do every day that replace feelings of helplessness or randomness with small acts of control. There is a reason that you feel better after a solid training session than you did before.

The need for control is one of our fundamental motivations. In the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow attempted to show this in a Hierarchy of Needs, which categorized human needs according to their psychological urgency. He suggested that humans are motivated to satisfy basic needs before we can spare the will to pursue the needs of higher orders.

“It is quite true that man lives by bread alone—when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?
At once other (and higher) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new (and still higher) needs emerge, and so on. This is what we mean by saying that the basic human needs are organized into a hierarchy of relative prepotency.” —from Abraham H. Maslow, “Motivation and Personality,” p. 38 (1954)

Maslow’s original theory included five categories of needs. The four basic needs were considered deficiency needs, meaning they motivate a person when they are unmet: physiological, safety, love/belonging (social), and esteem. The fifth need (self-actualization) Maslow considered a growth need, meaning that you feel satisfied as you gain self-actualization, and the more you gain, the more motivated you become. Maslow studied healthy, successful people to come up with this hierarchy, believing that what made them successful, in part, was the surety of meeting their key physiological needs. He extrapolated that if basic needs are unmet, then your motivation for greater needs will subside. If you lack food and water, by this model, you are likely not motivated to also satisfy your needs for safety or belonging.

Despite some problems with Maslow’s Hierarchy, it has persisted due to some almost universal truths contained in it. No level of the hierarchy is all or nothing, leaving room for individual variability. What it means to have one’s needs met is left open. Still, however, unmet physiological needs—such as those required to help you maintain homeostasis—tend to shift focus away from other possible motivations. Maslow wrote,

“Another peculiar characteristic of the human organism when it is dominated by a certain need is that the whole philosophy of the future tends to also change. For our chronically and extremely hungry man, Utopia can be defined simply as a place where there is plenty of food. He tends to think that, if only he is guaranteed food for the rest of his life, he will be perfectly happy and will never want anything more. Life itself tends to be defined in terms of eating.”

In the context of training, we’ve discussed how changes in energy balance, hydration, and temperature will not only invoke physical changes but will also cause you to change your behavior to remedy the deficiency. According to Maslow, this is because your most basic needs are not being met. When that happens, you experience side-effects of both a physiological and psychological nature, and you may be distracted from other vital needs.

Losing Control

“The person who has gone through a very severe accident may conclude that he is not the master of his own fate and that death is ever at his door. In the face of such an overwhelmingly stronger and more threatening world some men seem to lose confidence in their own abilities, even the simplest ones. . . .


When we can no longer handle the situation, when the world is too much for us, when we are not masters of our own fate, when we no longer have control over the world or over ourselves, certainly we may speak of feelings of threat. Other situations in which ‘there is nothing we can do about it’ are also sometimes felt to be threatening.” (Maslow, “Motivation and Personality,” p. 136.)

Control is a deficiency need, occupying the “Safety” tier of Maslow’s hierarchy. When shaken or shattered, atavistic responses create urgency around reestablishing or reasserting control in the same way a hungry person searches for food. Depending on the degree of loss and the person, “Individuals who do not perceive control over their environments may seek to gain control in any way possible, potentially engaging in maladaptive behaviors.” (Leotti, Lauren A et al. “Born to choose: the origins and value of the need for control.” Trends in cognitive sciences vol. 14,10 (2010))

Everyone has a biological need for control. Everything we do is an exercise of control—from big life decisions to spur-of-the-moment actions—all voluntary behaviors exercise actual, non-illusory control; when you do something, you are exerting the “self.” Psychologists suggest that the practice of control fosters self-efficacy and the motivation to greater and greater personal goals (Lauren, Born to Choose). It’s the practice that is important.

The perception of control changes from person to person. “The belief in one’s ability to exert control over the environment and to produce desired results is essential for an individual’s general well being” (Lauren, Born to choose). Note, however, the difference between actions and belief. While the need for control is ubiquitous and a positive part of your psyche. The perception of control must align with reality. A sudden loss of perceived control is upsetting, but people who focus on the things in their control as being those that are reasonably connected to their actions tend to maintain the perception of control even in chaotic situations (cf. Lauren, Born to Choose).

Regaining the Perception of Control

Maslow argued that the persistent feeling of control comes not from ignoring the illusion of control but from embracing the illusion and asserting control over your direct environment as an act of defiance. He wrote, “The person who hasn’t conquered, withstood and overcome continues to feel doubtful that he could. This is true not only for external dangers; it holds also for the ability to control and to delay one’s own impulses, and therefore to be unafraid of them.” Conquering, withstanding, and overcoming is practice for asserting control over your environment and yourself. Few people, however, have a chance to practice such boldness in non-emergency situations.

Most of us have to create challenges that will refine our perception of control. In this, physical training helps meet some psychological needs. Strength training serves as a means of self-actualization, the highest tier of Maslow’s hierarchy—being stronger makes us physically better and more capable beings. And the more capable we feel, the more likely we are to continue our efforts of self-actualization.

As you chase results, however, something else happens.

Every time you load the bar, face it, and choose to challenge yourself, you are exercising control over the most basic, fundamental sphere of your influence: YOU. When nothing else makes sense, you can control your actions; you can make a choice. Small choices like choosing to train when you don’t want to, or overcoming the fear of a heavy set, help ground your need for control. And from there, other choices that matter—being a good person, showing empathy, raising kids, and making yourself better—can seem more in your control. You’ve made a choice to do the hard thing before, and you can do it again. We can tie the

Training is an effort of self-actualization, but the day-to-day effort offers distinct and no-less-important changes. When you make choices that add value to you, each training session becomes an exercise of will, defiance against chaos and an act of control. Control isn’t about always succeeding. When it comes to you versus the bar, you do not always win, but as long as you succeed or fail by your own choices, you can’t really lose, either.



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